Rituals, offerings and supplications on behalf of the dead are hallmarks of many faiths. Followers of the ancient Persian prophet Zoroaster chant prayers for the deceased in their funeral ceremonies, beseeching God to forgive their transgressions. The Catholic Church—until the Reformation quashed the practice—offered intercessory prayers and elaborate masses for the departed.
The Old Testament, on the other hand, expressly enjoins all offerings to the dead. Further, the general thrust of the New Testament and early Christian writings is that all such practices are futile since “death is a boundary beyond which salvation may not be procured.” There are exceptions, however, such as this cryptic passage from 1 Corinthians: “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?”
The year is 1648 and most of Europe is in tatters. The Dutch War of Independence between Spain and the provinces—what are today the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg—has raged for 80 years, while The Thirty Years War within the Holy Roman Empire has laid waste to much of the continent. The population of Germany alone has fallen from 21 million to approximately 13 million.
What caused these interminable conflicts? Most historians believe religion played a central role. The publication by Martin Luther in 1517 of his Disputation on the Power of Indulgences planted the seeds for the Protestant Reformation. This, in turn, led to the Counter-Reformation—also known as the Catholic Reformation—and the Inquisition. As Protestantism continued to expand into areas previously dominated by the Roman Church, imperial authority was destabilized, as were the boundaries of kingdoms. And war came.
This is a story about a planet called Vulcan. No, not the place where S’chn T’gai Spock—better known as “Mr. Spock”—was raised by his Vulcan father and human mother. This is about a planet in our Solar System by that very same name. It differs, however, from all the rest in one important respect: no one has ever been able to find it.
To understand the mystery of Vulcan and how it was eventually solved, we must first turn our attention to a different—and quite real—planetary body: Uranus. While Uranus was discovered towards the end of the 18thcentury, during the early 1800s astronomers were beginning to wonder whether it might actually be a star. Those doubts had arisen because the planet was not adhering to Newton’s theory of gravity.
The Healing of the Syrophoenician (Canaanite) Woman’s daughter, chronicled in both Matthew and Mark, is an episode in Christ’s ministry we tend to pass over or sweep under the rug because it is embarrassing and difficult to explain. The challenges posed by the text, however, are no excuse for leaving it out of a manual or treating it superficially. Indeed, ignoring inconvenient scriptures or ones that fail to reaffirm our beliefs shows an unwillingness to engage with them on their own terms and infantilizes both the teaching and learning process.
Towards the end of his ministry, Christ is around the Sea of Galilee where he performs many miracles and continues to preach his gospel. But he becomes so fatigued by the relentless crowds that he decides to get out of Dodge. He heads north to the region of Tyre and Sidon—the major seaports of Syria and Phoenicia—in search of privacy, solitude and rest. But, no sooner does he arrive than he is accosted by a mother seeking help for her sick child: